Thanksgiving in a Troubled Land

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln called for three National Days of Prayer. First, he called for a day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer to be observed on April 30. Perceiving the bloody battle of Gettysburg to be a turning point in the war, he called for a Day of Thanksgiving to be observed on August 6. Finally, he called for yet another National Day of Thanksgiving on Thursday, November 26. Thanksgiving has been a National Holiday ever since. This is Lincoln’s October 3, 1863 proclamation:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

Older calls for thanksgiving included sanguine expressions of thanksgiving for God’s blessings but also much stronger calls for confession and repentance from sin. In that era, the churches and their leaders believed that God’s judgments came upon nations because of individual and national sin. Too many Americans consider themselves too “sophisticated” to believe such things today. So as sin has multiplied, and the fear of God abandoned, so has a sense of the need for public repentance. Our cultural institutions now promote sin and governments even fund sin. Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation focused on thanksgiving, but he pointed to the need for repentance. He wrote that the “gracious gifts of the Most High God… while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy… While offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, we ought to do so with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience…”

Earlier Thanksgiving Proclamations, like that issued by John Jay on March 20, 1779 amid the Revolutionary War, coupled deep repentance with hearty thanksgiving. Americans at that time were better taught and more biblically literate than Americans today. Thanksgiving included both solemnity and extraordinary joy. Those who wrote these proclamations knew that we were not deserving of the blessings and mercies God had shed upon America and they felt the guilt of sin that had led to epochal catastrophes. Read excerpts from Jay’s March 20, 1779 Thanksgiving Proclamation (scroll down to President John Jay):

Whereas, in just punishment of our manifold transgressions… there is reason to fear that he may permit much of our land to become the prey of the spoiler, and the Blood of the innocent be poured out that our borders to be ravaged, and our habitations destroyed. [Consider the U.S. today: “The prey of the spoiler and the blood of the innocent poured out” — Mass murders, assaults on law enforcement officers, domestic and foreign terrorist attacks, and the number of unborn babies intentionally aborted each year in America exceeds the total loss of life in the American Revolution, the Civil War, 1812, WWI, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, all put together. “Our borders ravaged” — Human traffickers, drug cartels, murderous gangs (MS-13), and targeted illegal mass immigration. “Our habitations destroyed” — The epochal fires ravaging California, ravaging hurricanes in the southeast, floods in the South and more, all would have been considered by our Forefathers as warnings and judgments of a Sovereign, Almighty God.]

Resolved… the first Thursday in May next, to be a day of fasting, Thanksgiving humiliation and prayer to Almighty God, that he will be pleased to avert those impending calamities which we have but too well deserved: that he will grant us his grace to repent of our sins, and amend our lives, according to his holy word: that he will continue that wonderful protection which hath led us through the paths of danger and distress… that he will inspire us with humility and moderation, and gratitude in prosperity: that he will give wisdom to our councils, firmness to our resolutions, and victory to our arms That he will have Mercy on our Foes, and graciously forgive them, and turn their Hearts from Enmity to Love. That he will cause union, harmony, and mutual confidence to prevail throughout these states…

That he will bountifully continue his paternal care to the commander in chief, and the officers and soldiers of the United States: that he will grant the blessings of peace to all contending nations, freedom to those who are in bondage, and comfort to the afflicted: that he will diffuse useful knowledge, extend the influence of true religion, and give us that peace of mind, which the world cannot give: that he will be our shield in the day of battle, our comforter in the hour of death, and our kind parent and merciful judge through time and through eternity. (John Jay, President of Congress and Charles Thomson, Secretary)

Our nation is troubled by many of these challenges, yet sadly, national fast days have become rare over time. Too many of our national prayer and thanksgiving days have given way to days of “Remembrance” or “Reconciliation,” patterned in part after our historic days of prayer. But these were lacking the meat of “repentance” even though, from a biblical standpoint, our nation is in jeopardy of losing all the many God-given blessings that have made it great–chiefly “righteousness,” another word, which, like “repentance,” is no longer in vogue (Pr 14:34).

  • We thank You, God, for all the material blessing we have in America, but these are no substitute for healthy families and churches, our godly heritage, our Constitution, our civil rights and religious liberty, and elected and appointed leaders who are champions of righteousness. Thank You for the faithful remnant — that body of believers from many denominations who are devoted to God. Thank You for the growing prayer movement and the faithful churches — especially those who are taking a courageous stand for righteousness in the public square, being salt and light in a nation that so desperately needs both! Thank You, God, for Jesus our Savior, who holds it all together by the word of His power. But may we, like our faithful Forefathers, who balanced their celebration and thanksgiving with humility and repentance, pray for those who have so little, especially for righteousness, which comes by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and brings eternal life. May we enter His gates with thanksgiving in our hearts and seek Him for sweeping revival, which will give Jesus His rightful place in our nation. “Sin is a reproach to any people,” but He is the “‘Righteousness’ that exalts a nation!” (1 Chr 16:7-36; Neh 12:27, 31, 40 43, 46; Ps 30:11-12; 69:30-31; 95: all; 100: all; 118: all; 136: all; 1 Cor 11:24; 15:57; 2 Cor 2:14; 9:10-15; Eph 5:18-20; Ph 4:6; 1 Th 5:18)

Dr. Kenyn Cureton, Vice President for Church Ministries at Family Research Council, prepared some powerful helps for pastors to use to prepare for their Thanksgiving services. They could be very helpful for Dads, Granddads, Moms, and Grandmas to bring an appropriate and important spiritual dimension into their homes as families gather for this uniquely American, God-honoring holiday. Find his written Sermon Helper packed with useful scriptures, data, stories, and thoughts. Get an accompanying PowerPoint and Bulletin Insert (pass all of these on to your pastor). Click HERE for David Barton’s history of Thanksgiving in America, which will provide you with information to sprinkle throughout your Thanksgiving. May you and your family have thoughtful, Spirit-filled Thanksgiving!

As always, thank you for praying!


Rev. Pierre Bynum
Chaplain & National Prayer Director

Family Research Council

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